Tag Archives: Peace Corps

After the R: How’s being home?

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Before sitting down to write today, I looked back at the first ‘After the R’ post that I wrote. In addressing the question ‘How was leaving?’ the first thing that I mentioned in the post was that I still felt in extremely close emotional proximity to Mozambique and to Peace Corps service. At that moment, I felt that life had changed suddenly in huge ways, that all that we had built up over two years was suddenly pulled out from under us, and that our lifestyle was kind of unraveled when we left.  There was a strange form of grief that I felt for a number of weeks after leaving, and 3 months later it still comes back to me some days. I expect it will for some time.

With 2 months of travel to process through some of the impact of leaving, we arrived home with more emotional distance and clarity. We arrived home to the tune of many questions about life in Mozambique, perhaps more questions about what’s next for us, and one glimmering question about what’s going on right now.

The question is: How is being home?

Remember when I gave you the short answer in that first post? I’ll do the same here.

The short answer is: Good.

The short answer is true. It is good to be home. It is amazing to see our family and friends. It is good to take a hot shower. It is good to eat blueberries. It is good to hike and ski and wander and roam. It’s good to drive to the doctor and not fly. It’s good to drive. It’s good to not sweat. And as a close RPCV friend once told me, it’s good not to have “crunchy panties,” due to residual detergent that’s impossible to remove during hand-washing…

There are mountains upon mountains of things to be grateful for when it comes to being home, and I recognize those things every day, and take note of them.

It is also possible to hold two things to be true at the same time.

It’s good to be home.

Remember when I told you before that the short answer is really only sufficient for small talk but provides minimal understanding? The same applies here.

We’ve been home now for what feels like an eternity but is actually hardly more than the blink of an eye. We’ve been home for 7 weeks.

We were gone for 124 weeks, and we’ve been home for 7.

I often forget the disproportion of those 2 numbers when I find myself frustrated at still being overwhelmed by the 87 varieties of Triscuits in the supermarket or still not being able to find words in English or snow boots in some packed-away box. In this way alone it’s incredibly obvious what’s changed in our lives: we’ve moved from a slow culture where ‘Eu nao sei’ (I don’t know) is an acceptable answer to any question from cracker choice to your life plan, to a fast culture where the expectation is to ‘sabe tudo’ (know everything), from cracker choice to your life plan.

Our life has changed so much, so quickly that some days it seems impossible that we’ve lived deeply in these two very different realities within 3 months of each other. It’s a very uncomfortable truth that Mozambique feels like a long, beautiful, vivid, increasingly distant dream. As I listen to a bathroom fan run, I wonder if it really could be true that I used to urinate frequently in a bucket. As I buy tomatoes only in multiples of 4, I realize how odd it is that Moz made that a habit that doesn’t apply here. I could pick up 2, 5, or 30 tomatoes, and there would be no woman to waggle her finger ‘no’ at me as if the idea of buying some willy-nilly, non-multiple-of-4 amount of tomatoes was preposterous.

These days, it seems that I am supposed to be like a rubber super-ball, bouncing back into life in America-the life I grew up in, after all- after bouncing out to Moz for a quick sec. In reality, I feel more like Silly Putty being tugged on by a nasty, grubby, sticky expectation of what re-integration should look like.

In one moment I am pulled into the terrifying maze of Super Target by the [false and infuriating] expectation that my re-integration should include shopping at mega stores.

In the next moment I am pulled into yet another conversation about the future, under the expectation that I should have a plan.

I should remember the plethora of helpful kitchen appliances now available to me. I should be able to eat all foods without my stomach taking revenge. I should be able to speak English well. I should never accidentally drive on the wrong side of the road for a sec (well, Alex should never…), I should be able to buy a 6-pack in less than 20 minutes and 6ish paces in front of the big ‘ole beer cooler. And, goodness gracious, I should know what Triscuit I want because I ate ’em before and what’s changed, really?

should feel normal.

should understand.

I should feel one hundred percent joyful to be home.

Whether these shoulds are pressed onto me by others or self-inflicted, the fact of the matter is that they are a product of the culture and the environment in which we now find ourselves, and staving them off is a never-ending battle.

I tell myself I should because I want to feel normal in my environment.

Others tell us that we should because they think they understand, because they want to understand and are trying to understand, and probably even give us helpful tips as to how we can re-adapt.

I believe strongly that there are pieces to the re-integration experience that everyone can relate to. Everyone has experienced sudden and drastic change in their life. Everyone has experienced pressure from expectations, and from the word should. Everyone has, at times, felt out of place in their culture or environment.

But just as with any of those unique experiences- and any RPCV reading this would say the same thing- no one can understand unless they’ve done it. Unless they’ve done this exact thing. I’ve had this conversation with RPCVs from Moz, from Tanzania, from Guyana, from Morocco, and while our experiences even vary among us, I think this is a pretty universal conclusion about reintegration.

I’d venture to say that all of the shoulds are about 20 steps beyond what any recently returned PCV feels is urgent and vital in re-integration.

There is a sense of urgency, perhaps, but it is not in what you think. There are a million subtleties that define each day, completely invisible to the person that sees them day in and day out, but stark to the person who doesn’t, or who hasn’t for a while. This is culture.

It defines how we relate to each other. It defines when and what we eat. It defines how we perceive our surroundings and our world. It defines expectations, goals, and desires. It is ‘the air we breathe.’

So, when you ask ‘How is being home?’ and I pause to inhale before I speak, know that I’ve already answered, just by taking a long, deep, slow, breath.

Being home is trying to catch my breath. Trying to catch my culture.

Meant to fill a void I have observed in the Peace Corps blogosphere, this series will address personal elements of life after earning my ‘R,’ a designation that changes a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) to a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), after 27 months of service. Look for posts that answer common questions, address elements of transitioning back to life in the U.S., and reflect on Peace Corps service.

 

 

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After the R: Home(s)sick

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If you’ve been following along with Happily Lost, you know by now that I am writing to you from Southeast Asia, where Alex and I decided to do some post-Peace Corps traveling.  A lot of Peace Corps Volunteers decide to take a trip after their service ends, or at least that’s the way it seems for Peace Corps Mozambique. Traveling before going back to the U.S. serves a variety of purposes: decompressing, processing Peace Corps service, providing physical and mental distance, and re-energizing before heading home to start anew.

I plan to write more about traveling through this transition, but for now I want to focus on a strange recurrence I have noticed while traveling for the past month or so: a dual homesickness.

When Alex and I travel, we tend to travel slowly. We usually take close to two months for a trip and like to stick to just a couple countries per trip. Each trip brings with it moments of homesickness, and this trip is no different in that sense.

What’s different about this homesickness, though, is that as we work our way through Southeast Asia, I feel certain moments of homesickness for Mozambique and other moments of homesickness for the U.S.

Undoubtedly, the biggest ‘missing’ that is shared between both places is missing people. In a messy, swirling place in my mind there are unsettling blips like thinking I need to go visit my good friend Marcia at her shop in Mapinhane but then realizing I can’t, and realizing how odd it is to see my oldest nephew with new braces, like some sort of big kid.

But the majority of these homesick feelings are distinct and unique to only one of the two places that my brain currently considers home.

When I crave the type of comfort that comes with familiarity and normality, I am thinking of Mozambique.

When I miss my physical home, that traveler’s feeling of ‘I just want to sleep in my own bed and cook my own food,’  I am thinking of Mozambique: our bright, sunny bedroom, our neighbors, our garden, cooking and sharing clean, simple meals around our big kitchen table.

When I miss day-to-day stuff, that travelers feeling of ‘it’s been nice to get out of my routine but it will be nice to get back into it,’ I am thinking of Mozambique: seeing friends every day, our outdoor market, slow mornings, afternoon yoga, the flow of students and colleagues, and the routines that were different depending on the day.

Of course, these two ‘traveler’s feelings’ will not be satisfied for a good long while, no matter where we go; I no longer have my own physical home anywhere and I certainly no longer have any semblance of daily routine.

When I crave stability as we are on the move, I am thinking of the U.S.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the other things that I am homesick for in the U.S. aren’t much different than they have been for the past two years: seeing family and friends, amenities, cleanliness, elevation change, waffles, and the type of comfort that can only come from the place where your roots first grew.

Of course, these things will be satisfied before too long, and it’s been a long time coming. I’m pretty pumped for reliably scalding hot showers, snow, and breakfast food.

The choice we’ve made to travel through this transition allows me to reside in this strange ‘no man’s land,’ taking a two-month pause between two very different but familiar cultures, between two sets of people that are so important in my life, between the immediate past and the immediate future, between two homes, after saying goodbye to one and before saying hello to the other.

Meant to fill a void I have observed in the Peace Corps blogosphere, this series will address personal elements of life after earning my ‘R,’ a designation that changes a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) to a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), after 27 months of service. Look for posts that answer common questions, address elements of transitioning back to life in the U.S., and reflect on Peace Corps service.

 

3 Smiles and A Struggle: Culture Week, Anniversaries, Small Stuff, and Fizzling

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The first month of this trimester found me in a state of rising momentum and energy, as we prepared for Culture Week. This year I am a Directora da Turma, kind of like a homeroom teacher and class mom rolled into one, for one of the streams of 8th graders. One of the biggest tasks of a DT at our school is helping your class prepare for Culture Week, which is a long weekend in which each stream of students competes with the others in a variety of activities. Preparation included weeks of putting together and rehearsing modern and traditional dance, musical imitation, traditional storytelling, poetry, a class anthem, and modeling capulana clothing, plus making some recycled art, drawing and painting a class banner, and ordering matching shirts and capulanas.

The experience of preparing for Culture Week was a whole new one for me, something completely fresh at a point in service where I expected to be coasting through to the end. It made me feel like a real newb again at points, like when one of our colleagues chuckled because I didn’t know how we would order shirts from Maputo and get them the 700ish kilometers up here to us in Mapinhane.

“Don’t you know someone in Maputo that can just put them on a bus for you?” he asked.

‘No. No I don’t,’ I wanted to say. ‘Because in my country I would order on the internet and they would arrive at my doorstep via UPS. Do you know someone that can put them on a bus for me?’ Lucky for me, he did know someone.

Or when I got flustered amidst the yelling of all the 8th graders and accidentally told them to form bichos (small bugs) instead of bichas (lines), a language error reminiscent of my first couple of months here.

But any experience that can bring service full circle like this is one worth having; I thought of myself trying to accomplish these things 2 years ago, or even 1 year ago: coordinating rehearsals of 44 8th graders arguing in local language, collecting money and ordering clothes, dealing with all the small hiccups that inevitably arise during a big event like this, and just being a leader to kids, all in a second language nonetheless. In thinking back on how it may have gone for me a year or two ago, I realized just how much I have learned and grown here. Not to say it all passed without stress, frustration, and confusion, but I could notice starkly the difference in how I deal with those things now in comparison to how it would have gone a year or two ago.

As if that weren’t reason enough to smile, Culture Week in itself was a huge high point of service. I realized how much I love working with students outside the classroom, and how interesting it is to see their personalities and skills in a different setting. In addition, it was awesome to watch them take ownership, and come out of the event feeling proud, excited, and united. When it came down to the actual event, I was so impressed with them, and happy with the level of ease and comfort in the communication between myself and them. On the last day of Culture Week, I was feeling a bit of pre-nostalgia about leaving Moz and leaving our students after spending these weeks getting so close to them and seeing them in a new light.

Check out this video we made to share the best of Culture Week!

 

My next smile came this past weekend, when Alex and I got to celebrate our 4th wedding anniversary, as well as our 12 year anniversary of being together. With the passing of each year together, we are always given a marker from which we can look back and see how we have grown and evolved. This year, so close to the end of Peace Corps Service, we have another marker to look back on and see the changes and, at the same time, a lot of changes to look ahead to.

“It won’t be the hardest thing we’ve ever done,” Alex said about going home and readjusting, finding jobs and a home.

“What is?” I asked him.

It only took a few moments of contemplation before we both decided that it was this. Peace Corps is the hardest thing we’ve ever done together.

For this, we were happy for the opportunity to spend the weekend in a peaceful, quiet place, have quality time together, reconnect outside of our daily routine, and have physical space to wander, anonymously, and without interruption.

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The third smile is in the small stuff. After the build up to Culture Week, the couple of weeks since then have brought a steady decline in momentum and energy; after all the newness and excitement, the day to day feels a little flat and boring. Despite knowing that this is probably the last chunk of time that I will have the luxury of feeling bored for a while, I still feel the need to combat the humdrum a little bit. I have been challenging myself to try a number of new, small things lately to keep my energy up a bit. Mostly, I’ve been experimenting with new recipes, passed along by friends-coconut oil fudge and chocolate banana ice cream to name a couple, and trying out new types of yoga- like a Chakra series and Yoga Fit. It doesn’t sound like much, but the feeling of a little freshness has helped me keep on smiling through this stagnant period, and has helped me remember how powerful all the little stuff is.

On a similar note, my struggle lately has been with the feeling that my Peace Corps Service is kind of fizzling out. What I mean is that all signs point to us NOT going out with a bang. In the 7 weeks we have left, there are no more big events coming up, like Culture Week or a REDES workshop, and with the school year winding down, everyone’s energy is winding down too. Although we will have small going-away parties, there will be no big send-off, no ‘cymbal clap’ on the day we leave. Our last goodbye will probably be us standing on the side of the road, just like any other trip to Vilanculos, sweating and trying to flag down a ride.

It was getting to be a pretty sad image, until I realized that this is Mozambique’s ultimate test to me. This is Moz asking, ‘Have you learned yet to appreciate all the small things? Have you learned to soak up the little smiles along the way? Do you know yet that it’s much less about the large accomplishment and much more about all the little moments?’

 
For me, this has been by far the biggest lesson of these two years, something I of course knew before in theory but has been tested relentlessly here, and has subsequently become a major value of mine. So, as is often the case, life is not full of energy and excitement right now, but still there’s always something of a smile around the corner.

With that, I keep asking myself, ‘When I am standing on the side of the road for the last time, sweating and flagging down a ride like it’s any other day, will I choose to feel satisfied with all the little smiles that have made up these two years?’

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Smiles and Struggles: The Home Stretch, Looking Back, and Looking Forward

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I began this post in the traditional format, as another edition of 3 Smiles and A Struggle. Within a couple of minutes of starting to write, I realized that something about it felt a little off this time around.

We are starting to get the question now: “How do you feel about your Peace Corps service ending?”

This question can best be addressed by realizing that at this point, there are a lot of smiles and struggles that are flip-flopping between being one or the other, depending on the day-let’s get real…the moment. Most of the big-picture smiles and struggles right now – of which there are quite a few- can be broken down into three general temporal categories: past, present, and future. Easy right?

Let’s talk about the present first:

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We are in home stretch of Peace Corps service.

Along with just regular, everyday stuff, I am currently wearing the following ‘professional’ hats, the same ones I have been wearing all year and some all of last year : 8th grade English Teacher, ‘Homeroom’ Teacher to one class of 8th graders, Adult English Club co-facilitator, Primary School library co-facilitator, REDES girls group co-facilitator, English tutor, potential 9th grade English teacher for the next couple months…

I smile right now because:

  • I realize how much I love having a varied work schedule.
  • I am doing what I came here to do and I feel like my efforts, energy, and frustrations have been worth it.
  • Time spent in this variety of settings is time spent with a huge variety of people that have been the most important part of my time in Moz.
  • Being busy pulls me into the present, forces me to focus on now, and doesn’t allow too much time for mulling over what’s coming.
  • I am documenting this important time in life.
  • I share this all with my lovely husband.
  • I am daydreaming about upcoming adventures.

I struggle because:

  • All of those hats come off on November 24, the day classes end and we leave Mapinhane.
  • The fact that all the hats will soon come off means spending a great deal of time and energy right now tying up loose ends and finding a way to feel satisfied with how I leave things.
  • This chunk of time serves as a slow and final goodbye to the work and people that have been my day-to-day for 2 years.
  • So much is happening that I hardly have a moment to even realize what is happening, or pause and actively take it in.
  • I am struggling to articulate things.
  • I worry not only about myself, but equally about my lovely husband during this transition.
  • This is the final phase of this particular rich and adventurous time in life.

Part of this home stretch period of service also brings a natural tendency to start looking back, noticing slowly what has happened in these two years, and reflecting.

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I am sure that all PCV’s (Peace Corps Volunteers) and RPCV’s (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers) would agree: making it through these 27 months is a big personal accomplishment that probably did not come easily, as well as an extremely meaningful personal experience. As we begin the process of closing our service, I can begin to reflect a bit on some of the general, and universal, smiles and struggles of Peace Corps service.

By the time Peace Corps service ends, a PCV can smile because they have:

  • Lived within a culture that is not their own and, therefore, can never be fully understood by said PCV, as culture is the thing ingrained in us since birth and dictates…..99% of what happens in a place, in my opinion, whether obvious or hidden, big or small.
  •  Learned a new language, and learned to express themselves in that language, work in that language, yell angrily in that language, joke in that language. And maybe even learned to love that language a little bit.
  • Done solid work in an environment flush with foreign norms, behaviors, thoughts, actions, languages, processes, and expectations.
  • Become familiar with the shadowy parts of their own internal environment.
  • Become familiar with which personal tendencies, habits, worries, etc. are a product of cultural context (common example: ‘I used to constantly feel guilty about the food I ate when I lived in the States. Here, I never feel that way.’) and which things are traits that stick no matter the cultural context, and are therefore the fabric of someone’s true self, and not a product of their context or surroundings.
  • Been deeply affected by their country of service.
  • And, more satisfying than all of the above, formed relationships that are the glue that holds this whole experience together.

The struggle is that by the time a PCV is at this point in service they might be realizing that:

  • That foreign culture, while still not fully understood like their own, has become familiar, comfortable, and normal in all its idiosyncracies.
  • They may not have many opportunities to speak that foreign language at home. They put a lot of time and effort into learning it and speaking it works their brains in a nice way. Hearing, usually, more than one foreign language being spoken around them at any moment gives their surroundings a rich texture. And, NOT understanding everything that’s being said at all moments has become familiar and freeing. For this, the foreign language (s) will be missed.
  • All their solid work could potentially a) turn to dust b) be the only opportunity they ever have to do this type of work c) yield many benefits that said PCV may never see or enjoy.
  • They have to find a way to turn the intangible, meaningful aspects of their service into an answer to the question, “How was it?”
  • They will most likely never again see most of the people that they have formed strong relationships with.

Alright, we’ve covered what’s happening now. We’ve talked very generally and objectively of what’s happened these past two years. So, I’m sure it comes as no surprise that a big part of this home stretch includes looking forward, figuring out next steps, containing excitement for what’s to come, and anticipating how this impending change might feel.

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When I look forward, I smile when I see:

  • My family
  • Travel and outdoor adventures
  • New work opportunites
  • My own transportation
  • A clean, private bathroom. A clean, private bathroom. A clean, private bathroom.
  • Food
  • Running water
  • Snow
  • Libraries
  • Anonymity and privacy
  • Not being asked for things every day: the eggs I just bought, the skirt I am wearing, the money in my wallet

I’ll stop there and tell you that recently, instead of counting sheep to fall asleep, I count Things That I Am Excited About In America.

That being said, when I look forward, I struggle when I see:

  • How disconnected we have become from the day to day lives of our families- and vice versa- and how many big things have changed at home.
  • How disconnected we have become from our home culture.
  • How nonsensical certain things in our country seem to have become.
  • The ugly sides of an individualistic culture: the part that says having doesn’t mean giving, and the loneliness that can come with relative anonymity.
  • The high level of expectations as to what should be accomplished daily in our home country.
  • Visions of the cereal aisle at the grocery store.
  • Temperature readings below 60  degrees Farenheit.

My struggles when looking forward are informed by close friends that are Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. The biggest struggle in looking forward comes from knowing that it is expected that you should feel normal in your home culture when you return because you grew up in it, but it won’t feel normal for a bit because of the new lens through which you are looking at it.

All new experiences- big or small- change a human’s overall perspective, or lens, through which they look at the world; my mom recently told me that since moving into a house that uses well water it drives her nuts when people waste water by leaving it running.

What Peace Corps feels like is two years of continually, metaphorically moving to a house that uses well water. [Read: life change/new experience].

What I predict as the biggest struggle of coming home is that it will feel like the water is always left running. [Read: uncomfortable re-adaptation after realizing that life change/new experience has caused perspective shift toward previously accepted behavior or norm].

Whether we are looking at the past, the present, or the future, there are guaranteed to be plenty of smiles and struggles, as always.

So, how do I feel about Peace Corps service ending?

I feel too rushed, and also impatient. I feel anxious, and excited. I feel nervous, and ready. I feel unfinished, and accomplished. I feel energized, and worn out. I feel vulnerable, and strong.

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Sunday Snapshot: Challenges

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About a year ago-on the verge of throwing the towel in and saying tchau to Moz- I started writing down 3 smiles each day and sticking them on the wall.

What started as a search for positivity in days that felt overwhelmingly challenging has become a record of my service, a necessary mental health practice, and a constant reminder of not only the beauty I have found, but the challenges I have  faced too.

Some days, I sit staring at the blank page for minutes, searching back through my day for any little glimmer. Some days I almost skip the practice, knowing for sure there will be nothing to write down, or feeling that smiling at all is a betrayal to how the day actually felt.

But I’ve found that a smile always comes out on the page, and then it brings to mind a few more, and then it opens my eyes to a few more the next day.

As wall space fills and the smiles get glued into a journal, the above quote stays.

“If you are living life without facing problems you are living life like a stone,” one of our favorite neighbors told me one day. A stone does nothing, he told me.

Like the Sunday Snapshots? Follow happilylostwithcece on Instagram to catch more Moz Snapshots !

A happy and smiling Sunday to you 🙂

Sunday Snapshot: Eating Well

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For about a dollar in Mozambique, today we’ll eat quite well. I’m making Kouve (that’s the big ‘ole dinosaur leaves pictured above) and green pepper coconut curry and dumplings.

In Mapinhane, this is a happy time of year for taste buds and tummies. We have an itty bitty market here and during the hottest time of year -December to February- it’s not uncommon to find nothing more than tomatoes, onions, and coconuts. I don’t hate that I’ve mastered spaghetti sauce, salsa, and all things tomato, but it sure is nice to get more variety during this cooler time of year. Summertime deprivation makes everything thereafter feel like a feast.

Like the Sunday Snapshots? Find more Moz snapshots on my Instagram, happilylostwithcece or under #100daysofmoz or #happilylostinmoz. 

Happy Sunday 🙂 Hope you’re eating well today too!

100 Days of Moz

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Well, I don’t think I quite believe it myself, but today marks the beginning of our last 100 days as Peace Corps Volunteers in Mozambique. The time is so short, but still there is a lot to be done, and more than that even, just a lot to be soaked up.

In the next 100 days we will complete our third trimester at school, and participate in some fun, festive holidays, like culture week and teacher’s day. I will move into the health-centered curriculum with my REDES girls group, and wrap up our year together with an end of year celebration, as well as prepare my lovely counterpart Marizia to run a group on her own wherever she goes after graduation at the end of this year. I have a few loose ends at the library- finishing a policy and procedures manual, leveling new books. And we’ll keep on enjoying our favorite piece of work each week: Wednesday evening Adult English Club.

More than all these tasks to be completed, though, we are focusing on spending time with the people in our community that we have come to love so much, whether that means visiting their families, having them over for dinner, taking a bit more time than usual to chit chat, or including them all in our eventual going-away party.

I expect the next 100 days to be a bit of a blur, really. Especially considering that I am sitting here wondering where the last two years of Peace Corps have gone. So, I am committing to documenting these next 100 days with images, to give you snapshots into our day-to-day lives before they change drastically, and to give ourselves something solid to look back on after it flies by.

You can find this photo series on my newly-created Instagram: happilylostwithcece, under #100daysofmoz.  And you can look for a bit more story to accompany the images that fall on Sundays, as I will post them in my Sunday Snapshot post here on the blog as well.

Looking forward to sharing these final 100 days with you!

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Sunday Snapshot: Home Sweet Sweet Potato

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It’s always nice to go away, and it’s always nice to come home, especially when the garden is growin’. After getting home from our recent travels in South Africa, Alex and I began our first sweet potato harvest. We dug and dug, following long, reaching roots to their ends, where we found some sweet potatoes as small as cherry tomatoes and others as big as grapefruits.

Photo Cred to Alex.

Health in the Peace Corps, and why I did 100 Days of Yoga

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It started in a hotel room in mid-January, I think. I sat crying on the bed, with three lovely ladies from our Peace Corps group listening and comforting me. It was a mental breakdown about a mental breakdown, a layering of struggles that I had never experienced before Peace Corps.

The breakdown that spurred this one had come about a month earlier, about halfway up Table Mountain in Cape Town. I had struggled up the devil switchbacks of that mountain. I slogged forward,a sweaty mess in the blazing summer sun. I felt, at one point, the wheezing breaths of the start of an asthma attack, something I hadn’t felt for more than ten years.

“I really don’t think I can make it to the top,” I told Alex, tears starting to flow. I rested for a long while, trying to catch my breath, halt my tears, and come to terms with the fact that I may not get up the mountain.

If I turned back, it would be the first mountain that I had ever retreated from. And, despite the suffocating heat and steep incline of the trail, it was still just a couple miles, barely above sea level.  For a Colorado gal who had lived above 8,000 feet and climbed much more formidable mountains before arriving on this side of the world, the possibility itself felt like defeat.

I did make it to the top of Table Mountain, and I felt a restrained triumph when I arrived: I had done the thing I thought I couldn’t, but I had struggled more than I thought I would.

So it is the metaphor for Peace Corps, I suppose.

It was that moment, that feeling, that brought about breakdown 2, the one in the hotel room. I hadn’t entered the room with the intention of airing my troubles or seeking comfort, but I was distraught deep down inside, and I couldn’t hold it in. Earlier that day I had seen one of the girls in the room working out, doing cardio stair-steppers in the deserted hotel stairway.

‘I can’t do that,’ I had thought. ‘I haven’t been able to work out for months.’

At that precise moment, I was feeling a nagging pain in my left lower abdomen, which had come and gone for the past three months or so, and which I had dubbed The Mystery Pain.

Three months with The Mystery Pain hadn’t been the start, or the worst, of my health struggles since coming to Moz. Before that I had spent about three months with ongoing cramps; before that I had suffered from insomnia for about two months. And, just to round things out, I had a few bouts of pretty severe food poisoning sprinkled in there too. It seemed that when one problem got sort of solved after multiple, multi-day trips to Maputo to see doctors, another would spring up.

So it was that I sat on the hotel bed in mid-January, not having made much attempt at exercise-except on-and-off yoga- since the previous April. For so many months, the health issues were so severe that I felt like I couldn’t exercise intensely. Not only was I exhausted and unmotivated, but I had a fear of making things worse, especially when it came to the pains and cramps I was having.

As it was, I hadn’t ever formed a good exercise routine in Moz to begin with. In the first few months, when I felt healthy and fit from our previous life as mountain dwellers, we tried a number of times to find a routine. We went running a few times during training, I tried an 8-week walker-to-runner program when we first got to site (which quickly melted away in the brutal summer sun), we did a part of a 6 week body weight calisthenics plan, and I did yoga on and off through it all.

Before the health issues ever started, there were two big struggles in finding an exercise routine.

One was that Alex and I had never had an exercise routine. Pre-Moz, we were very active, but it wasn’t a plan or program and it took close to zero motivation. We lived in the mountains and the mountains were our gym. We stayed healthy by doing the things we loved doing: biking, hiking, canoeing, snowboarding, and cross-country skiing, with lots of walking and yoga and occasional runs. The fact that it was this easy meant we hadn’t really had to think much about our fitness for about 4 years before Moz.

The other big challenge from the start was finding an exercise routine in a new life that felt completely void of routine. Our schedule in Moz is different every single day, and this took a lot of getting used to for me. There isn’t one specific time each day that can be set aside for working out, unless it’s 5a.m. Some days, I have to be out of the house by 7a.m. for work. Other days we get home from working at 8p.m. There’s a lot of free time in between, but it happens at different times each day. I had the idea that if I was going to do some boring workout plan- for the sake of staying in shape-and not really want to even be doing it, I had better make it a routine or I wouldn’t do it at all. Exercising wasn’t the only thing I tried to fit into a consistent block of time each day, and failed at doing so. It’s odd now to think back at myself trying to compartmentalize my time in this way; the inconsistent schedule that bothered me so much then hardly phases me now. In the end, I did find small ways to build a bit of routine into my days, to have tiny but vital moments of predictability and consistency. But exercise never became one of them.

After mental breakdown 2, the defeat and frustration just kind of brewed and brewed, until finally I told myself that, even with The Mystery Pain lingering around, I could at least start doing something easy, to commit to taking care of my mental state and maybe start regaining my physical health. Through all the ups and downs, yoga had been a go-to for me, a way to calm my thoughts and give gentle exercise to my body, and a way to have time to myself each day.

So, on March 1, I started a 30-day yoga challenge from YouTube (shout out to SarahBeth Yoga). It started so simple, at 10 or 15 minutes a day, and built up from there. I could tell that even the simplest things felt challenging. But when those simple things became simple again, I noticed. That was a positive about losing so much health, I told myself: getting to actively notice it building up again.

At the end of the 30 days, I felt so good and had gotten into the habit of finding time somewhere in the day each day for intentional movement and self care. So I kept going. I think it was at about day 45 that I decided to commit to 100. At first it felt a little extreme and unnecessary; I asked myself if I was being obsessive, expecting myself to exercise every single day. But I wasn’t pushing or forcing, or training for hours each day. I was spending 30 minutes each day doing a good thing for myself. I was listening, paying attention, and taking care of myself.

What finally came out during that long hotel room cry was kind of a raw and sad truth: I was having an identity crisis. An active, snowboardin’, mountain-climbin’, outdoorsy Colorado girl was my identity, and I felt like I had lost it. Never before had I felt limited by my physical fitness; if there was a mountain I wanted to climb, there was no doubt in my mind that I would stand at its peak.

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Now, there was doubt. “That’s who I was,” I cried. “It feels gone now, so who am I now?”

There are a lot of answers, of course, because for everything I’ve lost I’ve gained a whole lot more. But it’s not always so easy to remember this.

With my brief mentions of my 100 days of yoga on Facebook and here on the blog, I felt that all these other things could not be left unsaid.

My 100 days of yoga was not a challenge made for the sake of accomplishment. It was a saving grace after a year and half of mental and physical turmoil. I did not do it to achieve a beautiful pose and post daily photos, because my goal was not to impress, or even inspire, anyone but me. So, the 100 days were for me, but this story is for you.

It was important to me to share all this so you can know why my contented smile in the picture of tree pose I have shared feels like one of my largest triumphs. And it feels crucial to me to say that the crow pose I shared didn’t come until about day 80, and that those seconds spent in it were my strongest, physically, in nearly two years.

But maybe the most important thing that came from my 100 days of yoga, and the journey that led me there, was this thought that started springing up in the quiet, blissed-out moments at the the end of each practice, the things I started saying to myself: thank you for taking this time for you, for listening and paying attention, for playing, smiling, and challenging yourself.

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3 Smiles and A Struggle: 100 days of yoga, Visitors, The girls workshop, and What’s Next

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June was a joyful whirlwind of a month for us, as seems to be the theme of this second year of Peace Corps. I was lucky to go into this busy time feeling solid and well-grounded. The reason was that on June 8, the day before our lives got a little crazy, I completed 100 days of yoga. The 100 days of yoga was something that I had decided to challenge myself to after completing a 30 day yoga challenge in March and feeling really darn good by the end. The whole idea had come about as a way  to start getting back into shape and bring back at least some of the health that I felt like I lost during the first year of Peace Corps. The 100 days did just that, and more. My daily time spent doing yoga became my guaranteed Cece time, to take care of me. What a comfort this was! The challenge also brought about the realization that it is definitely possible to find time every day  for intentional movement and self-care. There were a number of days that I was certain I did not have time for yoga that day but, in the interest of not bungling my  whole challenge, had to find the time. In the end, I found it each and every day, even if it was just ten minutes spent in legs up the wall or a gentle stretch after getting over a stomach bug. I came out of the challenge feeling strong mentally and physically, and full of smiles for this and for having accomplished my goal.

 

A lot of smiles this month came from having visitors. Our first visitor was one of our best friends, Sarah. Sarah was in the Peace Corps in Tanzania from 2010 to 2012 and visiting her at her Peace Corps site was a big part of our Kenya/ Tanzania trip in 2012. In fact, this was the first time that I remember thinking, ‘We could do something like this. We could definitely do Peace Corps.’ From the moment we told her we were going to Peace Corps, she was set on visiting us and seeing our site. You may recall that we met Sarah and our friends Liesel and Jared and Victoria Falls for New Year’s. At the time, they were on a quick 3 week trip in this part of the world. Because of visa costs and time factors, they didn’t visit Mapinhane. However, soon after, Sarah got a job in Tanzania for June and July. She immediately began scheming to visit us here in Mapinhane first. So, we are beyond lucky to have received not one but two visits on the African continent from such a good pal. We spent our short week with Sarah soaking up the sun in Vilanculos, stand-up paddle-boarding, and enjoying perhaps more seafood in one sitting than we have in the last year combined. We then headed to Mapinhane, where Sarah tagged along to class with us- just as we had with her 5 years ago- hit it off with our beloved adult-learners at Adult English Club, sat in front of approximately 40 pairs of staring eyes while I read to primary school students at the library, labored through making Matapa, and got the first-ever full tour of the 7 Wonders of Mapinhane (detailed post coming soon).

We saw Sarah within the last 6 months of her service, when a PCV seems to be constantly oscillating between anxiety and impatience regarding the future, and nostalgia for and weariness toward their country of service. I remember her at that time, thick-skinned and mildly irritated half the time, and downright revelatory the other half. She too, visited us at this same point in our service.

In a week’s time, it felt like something in our friendship with Sarah had come full circle: we visited her Peace Corps site, where the seed of the idea of doing Peace Corps was planted, only to have her visit our Peace Corps site almost exactly 5 years later, and find us in, probably, a similar state to where she was herself at this point 5 years ago.

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We parted ways on opposite sides of the highway that runs through Mapinhane: Alex and Sarah heading north to Vilanculos, where she would catch her flight out, and me heading south the Tofo, with 4 female students from school.

This brings us to the next smile: this year’s REDES workshop. You may remember a bit about REDES, and about being a female from Mozambique, from my post after the workshop last year. REDES stands for “Raparigas em Desenvolvimento, Educação, e Saude,” or ‘Girls in Development, Education, and Health.’ The program is a curriculum of 15 meetings, designed for adolescent girls and covering subjects like good communication, healthy friendships, goals for the future, puberty, reproductive health, HIV, and much more. Last year, I never got a group up and running at school, but was continually nudged by my amazing counterpart, a 12th grader at school named Marizia,to keep trying.

So, this year, the two of us finally got a group of 8th grade girls together that meets twice a month. Each year, Peace Corps Moz puts on regional workshops for REDES, and other such youth groups, in which leaders bring a few of their group members to meet other groups from the region and do more intensive learning about the topics covered in regular meetings. The workshops help create a strong network between the participants; Marizia still talks with a lot of the participants she met last year. They are also meant to be a type of mini-camp, reminiscent in some ways of weekend Girl Scout getaways. There’s a lot of singing, dancing, game-playing, and pillow talk.

This year’s REDES workshop was one of my favorite things that I have done during my Peace Corps service so far. I was so impressed with the PCVs who organized the event; it was dynamic, fun, productive, and full of a constant, buzzing energy. The group facilitators got to work with girls in small groups, for an extended time to talk more in-depth about topics like HIV, puberty, menstruation, and life skills. This led to a lot of great discussion and participation between the girls. The girls amazed us with theatrical performances on the last day, centered around things like higher education and drug and alcohol use. We also played A LOT. The girls and facilitators seemed to always have a song or game in their back pockets, and we spent some time one evening doing Zumba as a big group.

After an awesome and exhausting 3 days, the groups cleared out pretty quick to travel home after breakfast on the last day. All was quiet, and the beach in front of our accommodation was deserted.

“Teacher, vamost mergulhar!” my girls proclaimed. ‘Teacher, let’s swim!’

Having arrived later than expected on the first day, the girls hadn’t had as much free time at the beach as I would have hoped. There was free time here and there during the days of the workshop, during which there would be a mass exodus of girls headed for the beckoning sea just 2 minutes away. Still, I could tell my girls wanted more, and I had promised them some uninterrupted, free time on the beach before our journey home.

There are moments here when I see joy that is so uninhibited, all I can do is watch and try to soak it up in hopes that it will settle into me. This kind of joy isn’t fleeting; once you’ve seen it, you have it with you. A brilliant early morning sun rendered the girls silhouettes as I watched them, at first, jumping waves, laughing, and running from the surge of foamy water. Claenencia, tiny in stature but bursting with a sassy sense of humor, had never seen the ocean before and her string of giggles as she clung to my side were like bubbling purs of a happy kitten. Artezia, always quiet but with a look of contemplation, knowledge and strength, ventured a bit further, holding the hand of Meyvis. And Meyvis.

“Meyvis!” I reveled at her. “O seu coração…está no mar!” ‘Your heart is in the ocean.’

Meyvis often looks serious, angry or irritated even. I see her this way in class and in our REDES meetings, and I saw her like this all weekend. I’ve learned, though, that she isn’t usually angry or irritated. I will have seen her looking this way, and then later overhear her telling her friends how happy she was about whatever it was that was happening when she was glaring, sullenly, from the corner. Although I know this, seeing her smile, seeing her joy come out as she played among the waves was enough to make me smile and laugh too.

In the waves, Meyvis couldn’t stop beaming and laughing. She watched the waves like they were alive, deciding her next move among them, experimenting with a little bit of swimming.

Before too long, I had waded out with the girls. Artezia and Meyvis wanted to do more than jump waves, they said. They wanted to learn to swim. Laying belly down on the sand, I demonstrated the motion of swimming. They practiced. “Consegui!” ‘I succeeded!’ Meyvis told me. Watching them splutter as the water splashed into their faces, I taught them how to hold their breath. They took turns practicing, floating, face down in the water, holding my hands while the water sloshed them around the shallows. ‘Consegui!’ Meyvis beamed after a few rounds. I showed her how to blow bubbles out her nose. She practiced, coming up with her eyes closed, spitting water as she told me “Consegui Teacher!”

“Vamos para lá!” she said next, pointing east to the breaking waves. ‘Let’s go THERE!’

A few times, while they played on the beach or splashed in the shallows, I swam out into the waves alone, diving under them. Now, Meyvis wanted to go.

I explained to her first the principle of diving under the waves. If you are under them, I told her, everything is calm and they can’t batter you. If you stay above the water, that’s when the waves batter you.

We swam out a bit, not as far as I had gone, holding hands the whole way. I told her I would say when to dive under. We watched the waves growing, rolling under the water, before cresting and breaking.

“Agora!” I shouted as one approached us. ‘Now!’

We dove under, and she came up laughing out loud. Again, again, again we dove under.

“Consegui!” She kept telling me.

More then two hours had passed by now, and I practically had to drag them out of the ocean. The busy and productive weekend, seeing their pure joy, and having the chance myself to be free and play left me full to the brim.

 

 

It was also during this REDES workshop weekend that we received our second group of visitors. In fact, this group, Alex’s mom, aunt, uncle, and aunt’s mom, had ended up at the same beach at which the REDES workshop was being held, and were there when I arrived.  They are in southern Africa for two months, completing a big loop that was spurred by coming to visit us in Moz. Because their travel is so long, it is also very flexible, and some switching of plans is what led them to Tofo beach at the same time that I was to be there. Between the activities of the workshop, I was catching up with them, trying to make up for the 20 or so months since last seeing them.

From the REDES workshop, we all traveled back to Mapinhane together, where our family spent a few days tagging along to school with us, meeting all our favorite people and, again, laboring for their Matapa.  Our time with them was rich and satisfying. Just simply having the time to spend together, chatting and catching up, around the dinner table was more special than anything else we could have done.

As we try to prepare for our last leg of Peace Corps service, it’s stuff like this that fills the tank, gives us the energy to finish strong. As if the time spent catching up and hanging out with people we love wasn’t enough, having visitors also meant getting to experience the strange kind of magic that happens when you see your Peace Corps service through new eyes, as a visitor sees it.

For the second week in a row, our service got to be new and fresh again, perhaps more so with Alex’s family than with Sarah, who could draw a lot of similarities to her own service. Suddenly,  the things that are normal to us now seemed a bit adventurous once again: chickens on the bus, people who think you’re just another tourist mulungu, the energy of a Mozambican vegetable market. The slow pace of life that we have adapted to felt fleeting and precious: nearly nothing runs by a clock and we nearly never have too little time to stop and chat with someone. Our uncertainty about progress in our work got put on pause to the compliments of someone seeing it from the outside: it’s an accomplishment to teach with nothing more than a blackboard and chalk, and do it in another language, it’s impressive to manage 45 8th graders at the same time, it’s incredible to see the confidence of our adult English learners as they read aloud. The friendships and sense of community that we are used to were marveled at: we pick Matapa leaves off our bread vendor’s trees, there’s a give and take of resources between people in the community , and some days we can’t get through a full sentence while we walk through town without the calling of one of our names interrupting. In just a few short days, all of these re-realizations were a reminder of what a special and unique time this is for us.

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Alex’s fam at Adult English Club.

While the presence of visitors has the ability to really ground us in the present and let us observe our service as they do, it also brings about lots of questions about life after Peace Corps, which seems to be barreling toward us at a somewhat frightening rate. This struggle is twofold. First, our visitors reminded us what life in the States is like. Yes, some days it feels like we’ve forgotten what it feels like to live in the States, as strange as that sounds. But it seems there is no better way to remember than spending time with Americans straight out of America. Over the course of our two weeks with visitors, we noticed a number of American tendencies that now seem to be less a part of our life than they once were: an attachment to schedules and plans; an unbridled optimism towards problems and the presentation of solutions in the form of “Why  don’t you just…..” statements; and a probably normal but high-for-us standard of hygiene and cleanliness of self, home, and possessions, as seen in Sarah’s diligent sweeping of ants off the outside of our house and Alex’s aunt’s suggestion-before seeing them and realizing they may never have been cleaned properly- that we clean our shared toilets with baking soda and vinegar. Needless to say, our response to both: “Not worth it….” All of these little things remind us of what’s next in our life, of all the things about American life that we will have to re-remember and re-adapt to .

The other side of the “What’s Next” struggle comes in the answer to the question, “What’s next?” The answer is this: We don’t know.

We do not begrudge our visitors for bringing to light the fact that it’s time to start thinking about the future. Not at all. With or without the presence of visitors, trying to answer this question, if only for ourselves, has certainly been a struggle lately. It’s not that we haven’t thought about it, it’s more that we just still don’t know. We know it’s time to think about it. We know that ‘having a plan’ is the thing that’s supposed to come next. We know that some of the PCVs in our group are already there and lots of others aren’t. Perhaps it’s in realizing how much less attached we have become to long-term plan-making. Perhaps it’s that life in Moz has drilled in to us a sense that most things are utterly unpredictable, and, subsequently, left us mildly resigned from any attempt at control. Or perhaps it’s that our whole sense of time here has slowed waaaaayyy down, meaning that our five remaining months still feel like a lot of time. But more than any of this, I think it’s that, for all of the ideas and dreams and schemes that we have thought about for life post-Moz, committing to anything feels like a weird betrayal, like Moz is already in the back of our minds as we jump ahead to the next plan. Every time we try to make a set plan for how the next year or so of our life will look, it feels horrible and forced and completely unnatural. Right now, we don’t want to be planning our next big chapter. We want to be in this chapter, because we know this time is going to fly and we know we will never have anything remotely like it again.

I know that all of these changes will reverse, to some degree, one day. I know that we will once again become plan-,makers, even if it’s to a lesser degree. I know that life one day may feel slightly more predictable, whether or not we will like that, I don’t know. I know that some day I will probably try to regain a sense of control on things, but maybe it will never be to the level that I tried before. I know that it won’t be long before our sense of time changes again and 5 months feels like nothing instead of an eternity. These are products of the culture you are surrounded by.  Although we didn’t know it 2 years ago, these changes were inevitable in coming here, and their reversal is inevitable in our return. And I know that we’ll find a balance, eventually, of enjoying our last months here and thinking about what’s to come.

But for now, ‘What’s Next’ is nothing more than the hours that will pass today: going for a run on my favorite path, hoping that bread comes in to the market from Vilanculos, and cooking up a hearty dinner.

We have 5 more months to enjoy a life that’s this simple, and that’s what’s next on the list of things to do.

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